Are Dating Apps Causing the Increase in STDs?

May 27, 2016

8:00 pm

Roughly three years ago, Harold Wiesenfeld, medical director for Pennsylvania’s Allegheny County’s STD and HIV program, started to be bothered by something his patients were telling him. It became big enough of an issue that Wiesenfeld began asking his patients about the dating apps they may be using:

“They were volunteering that many of their partners were unknown because they met through anonymous dating apps like OK Cupid and Tinder .”

Most recently, we're seeing increased numbers in popular dating apps taking steps necessary towards stopping the latest surge in STDs. For apps like Tinder, warning users about the dangers of unprotected sex probably wasn't in its business plan.

HIV's History

HIV peaked in the 1980s and early 90s, when the death rate was up to 40,000 people annually. Shame-based ignorance helped drive the epidemic: it was an affliction that only gay men and drug users contracted.

That started to change in the mid-90s when Earvin “Magic” Johnson told a press conference that he had AIDS; he had gotten it from a woman during heterosexual sex.

Then, as if a curtain lifted, AIDS and its treatment were in the news and the rate of new infections began to drop. As new infections began falling, it became widely understood that safe sex could prevent infection —  for both gay and heterosexual individuals.

That is until the 2000s came along. Health care professionals are starting to see an increase in STDs, and the cause may be in the palm of your hand.

Russian Roulette

For many people, dating has evolved with technology.

Apps like Tinder, Blendr and Grindr make it easy to connect; it’s the digital bar scene. It’s also a sick form of Russian Roulette.

“There isn’t a great deal of interaction,” says app user Keith Pratt. “It’s let’s-meet-and-you-don’t-know- what-you-may-get.”

The same disease that affected Al Capone, Hitler and Beethoven were all but wiped out decades ago. But people are still catching syphilis – and it's being spread in part thanks to technology.

“We’ve had a dramatic increase,” says Jan Fox, a registered nurse with the Oklahoma Health Department. “We’ve seen an increase in syphilis cases since 2012.”

Fox agrees with the Russian Roulette comparison. “When you have unprotected sex, you risk acquiring syphilis and other STDs,” she said.

Tinder’s warning about safe sex and its free STD clinic search tool is hard to find on its website. Dr. Marina Gafanovich, a prominent Manhattan physician, hopes the company becomes more engaged.

“We want to use social apps for good, harvest them and spread information about STDs,” Gafanovich said. “I think information is key. I think that would be a great avenue for these social apps to pursue.”

Dr. Gafanovich said that one colleague told her that in their state, there have been cases of people on business trips in town for one night only to hook-up with a partner. The partner would then get infected with an STD; however, with no contact information, it was impossible to trace the carrier and prevent it from spreading to more people.

“We are trying to strengthen the network with organizations including reproductive health clinics, homeless clinics and faith-based organizations. We want to get more people test and get the word out about having safe sex,” Dr. Gafanovich said.

She would like to see the dating apps seriously understand the ability they have to not just connect people, but educate them as well.

Hook-Up Quickly with More People

Diagnosis of STDs are rising in America. Experts attribute the upsurge to growing complacency about sexually risky behavior which is partly fueled by dating apps.

In 2015, researchers with New York University, published a study that tracked HIV cases increasing beginning at around the time Craigslist was created and became the go-to place for casual sex. The researchers found that from 1999 through 2008, Craigslist correlated with an increase in HIV infections.

Anindya Ghose, co-author of the study, thinks that online dating apps have brought a similar effect:

“What the Internet does is make it a lot easer to find casual sexual partners,” he told VICE news. “Without dating apps, a great deal of effort would be put into casual relationships, chatting with someone at a bar or hanging out. These platforms make it convenient and easy and that is the driver.”

Does Grindr cause transmission? Observers aren’t sure. Grindr, and similar apps, give greater access to more people quickly. Since there are geospatial possibilities to finding friends and hooking up, it may be contributing, but may not as well.

A Possible Antidote?

If you’ve been tested for STDs, you know the hassle and anxiety; you wait nervously for hours only to be told that you'll hear news only if you test positive for something. The process can be nerve-wracking and that’s where Healthvana steps in.

Healthvana allows medical labs to send results directly to your phone. Users can get results quicker, prove a health status to partners and send medical records to a new physician.

For curable infections including chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis, Healthvana shows a positive or negative icon. A positive result for HIV triggers a phone call from your physician. Developers believe that a streamlined way to receive test results will encourage more people to take charge of their sexual health. Some of the app’s users feel it raises more questions than answers and doesn’t address some problems.

For instance, instead of facilitating face-to-face conversation, the app could be downloaded in order to avoid having to actually talk to a partner about their health status. It could become just another way to hide behind a screen. It's the same lack of communication that fogs the issue of true consent; lack of conversation prior to sex leads to the assumption that the absence of “no” means “yes.”

If Healthvana facilitates discussion between potential sexual partners, it improves communication.

Healthvana could go either way. The app could provide a jumping off point for people to discuss sexual issues, or it could hide the conversation with profiles and messages.

Just another excuse to not have open dialogue.

Pratt dodged a number of dangerous sexual bullets. Following a few “Miss Right Nows” he finally found “Miss Right”.

“We’re engaged,” said Pratt.

It beats the digital alternative; promiscuity comes with a costly price tag.

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Jerry Nelson is a freelance photojournalist.